Published in MSN Travel, July 2013
Be a brave traveller on the Karakoram Highway
The first thing that strikes me when wandering through the old town is the abundance of raw meat hanging outdoors on gigantic metal hooks. The second is the vast number of flies attracted to it. The butcher’s solution in this frontier town? Simply douse the beef in bug spray. Problem solved, and no extra charge for the marinade.
I’m in Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, about to embark on the world’s most epic road trip - the Karakoram Highway. Connecting China with Islamabad Pakistan, the 800-mile mountain road snakes its way past across some of the tallest mountains on the globe, including fourteen of the world’s eight-thousanders.
Well known on the adventure travel circuit, the pass reveals many stunning and previously inaccessible peaks to mountaineers and cyclists. Three of the globe’s mightiest mountain ranges converge here: the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya. Through them, the highway is dotted with friendly Muslim villages, the occasional snow leopard and military personnel. The area has always been of strategic importance, not just for the trade centers along this ancient silk route, but it is here the Great Game played out between British, Russian and Chinese empires in the 19th- century.
Before boarding the bus in Kashgar, we take a few days to stock up on provisions and explore this inimitable city with its large Uyghur population. Wandering about the old town, once Central Asia’s finest example of a traditional Islamic city, life seems not to have changed much in the past century. Men hammer away on copper pots, barefoot children chase goats down the labyrinth of alleyways and a barbers shave patrons outdoors with stone-sharpened blades.
The event not to miss is the Sunday market, where hundreds of farmers and their livestock converge each week to trade animals and barter for goods. A dizzying array of silk, carpets and spices are exchanged. Wads of cash are carefully counted, and occasionally thrown on the ground to emphasize an insulting offer.
With hopefully enough supplies to sustain us, we board the bus filled with friendly Pakistani men and one other female, a Swedish Doctor. For her, this journey is a homecoming of sorts, as her mother made the trek through the Karakorum atop a donkey 60-years ago to give birth to her in Turkey. Although the highway which was constructed from 1966 to 1986, is mostly paved, it is not smooth.
Careening down the single-lane highway in our decrepit bus, we are convinced we’ll either get creamed by oncoming vehicles or plummet 15,000 feet down the side of the pass. Nighttime is the worst, especially when rain slashes the windshield, making it even harder for the driver to see with no working windshield wipers and only one headlight.
But it all is forgotten by the time dawn breaks, as we peer out the dusty windows, craning our necks to glimpse the staggering peaks that stab the sky.
After skirting around the Taklamakan Desert, we penetrate into interior Pakistan, and hunker down in the self-governing territory of Gilgit Baltistan region. A dense sea of precipitous rock and ice pinnacles, it is the promised land for mountaineers. Home to over 800 mountains above 6,000 meters, days revolve around consuming enough calories in remote villages before burning them on trails, such as the base camp of K2, the world’s second highest mountain.
From blazing turquoise skies to pretty fields of wildflowers, so much is unexpected. Who would’ve expected polo matches in the Hunza Valley? Or verdant terraced fields that were said to be the inspiration for the lost kingdom of Shangri-la? Or that the fruit produced in this valley would be as sweet as its shy locals? It’s painful tearing ourselves away from this paradise, but even backpackers have schedules to keep.
We get to know our fellow travellers well during this arduous journey of 12-hour days. Food is shared and there are no private restroom facilities, just loads of curious locals. All too soon we arrive in Islamabad and gratefully say good-bye to our bumpy bus, but not the memories it produced. Though the highway is long and precarious, it offers big rewards for intrepid travellers.
Note: In 2010 a landslide blocked part of the valley near Karimabad. The Hunza River dammed up and eventually reached the height of the landslide, producing a lake, and submerging over 20 km of the highway, it’s bridges and surrounding villages under water. It’s unlikely the landslide will be cleared anytime soon (or ever), and boats now ferry passengers across Attabad Lake, making it still possible to journey along the Karakoram Highway.